Unrivaled, p.3

Unrivaled, page 3

 

Unrivaled
 



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  The reunion fantasy that had fueled the drive from OK to CA instantly evaporated into the Los Angeles smog, as Tommy made his escape, vowing to make a name for himself before he tried that again.

  And now, there he was. Ira Redman sucking down oxygen like he owned controlling shares in that too.

  “Hey,” Tommy mumbled, hiding his hands under the counter so Ira wouldn’t see the way they shook in his presence, though the tremor in his voice surely gave him away. “What’s up?”

  The question was simple enough, but Ira chose to turn it into a moment. An awkward moment. Or at least it was awkward for Tommy. Ira seemed content to just stand there, his gaze fixed like he was assessing Tommy’s right to exist.

  Don’t flinch, don’t be the first to look away, don’t show weakness. Tommy was so focused on how not to react he nearly missed it when Ira pointed an entitled finger at the guitar just behind him.

  Clearly Ira had decided to take a little time out from world conquering to indulge some latent rock star fantasy. Fine with Tommy, he needed the sell. But he’d be damned if Ira walked out with the beautiful twelve-string Tommy had mentally tagged as his own from the moment he’d strapped it across his chest and strummed the first chord.

  He purposely reached for the guitar just above it, lifting it from its wall hooks, when Ira corrected him.

  “No, the one right behind you. The metallic blue one.” He spoke as though it was an order. As though Tommy had no choice but to do Ira’s bidding, serve his every whim. It was unnerving. Degrading. And it made Tommy even more resentful of Ira than he already was.

  “It’s not for sale.” Tommy tried to direct Ira to another, but he wasn’t having it.

  His navy-blue eyes, the same shade as Tommy’s, narrowed in focus as his jaw hardened much like Tommy’s did when attempting a piece of music he’d been struggling to interpret. “Everything’s for sale.” Ira studied Tommy with an intensity that made Tommy squirm. “It’s just a matter of negotiating the price.”

  “Maybe so, bro.” Bro? He called Ira Redman bro? Before he could linger on that for too long, Tommy was quick to add, “But that one’s mine, and it stays mine.”

  Ira’s steely gaze fixed on Tommy’s. “That’s too bad. Still, mind if I have a look?”

  Tommy hesitated, which seemed kind of dumb, since it wasn’t like Ira was gonna steal it. And yet it required every ounce of his will to hand the piece over and watch as Ira balanced it in his hands as though expecting the weight to reveal something important. When he strapped it over his chest and assumed some ridiculous, pseudo-guitar-god stance, laughing in this loud, inclusive way like they were both in on the joke, Tommy had to fight the urge to hurl right then and there.

  The sight of Ira manhandling his dream had him sweating straight through his Jimmy Page T-shirt. And the way he dragged it out, pretending to do a thorough inspection when he clearly had no idea what to look for, made it clear Ira was putting on some kind of show.

  But why?

  Was that how bored rich people entertained themselves?

  “It’s a beautiful piece.” He returned the instrument as Tommy, relieved to have it safely out of Ira’s possession, propped it back against the wall. “I can see why you’d want to own it. Though I’m not convinced you do.”

  Tommy’s back stiffened.

  “The way you handle it . . .” Ira placed both hands on the counter, his manicured fingers splayed, his gold watch gleaming like a cruel taunt, as if to say, This is the life you could’ve had—one of great privilege and wealth, where you’d get to harass wannabe rock gods and piss all over their dreams just for the fun of it. “You handle it with too much reverence for it to be yours. You’re not comfortable with it. It’s a part from you, rather than a part of you.”

  Tommy pressed his lips together. Shifted his weight from foot to foot. He had no idea how to reply. Though he’d no doubt the whole thing was a test he had just failed.

  “You handle that guitar like it’s a girl you can’t believe you get to fuck, rather than the girlfriend you’ve grown used to fucking.” Ira laughed, displaying a mouthful of capped teeth—shiny white soldiers standing in perfect formation. “So how ’bout I double whatever it is you think you could pay for it?” His laughter died as quickly as it started.

  Tommy shook his head and stared at his trashed motorcycle boots, which, in Ira’s presence, no longer seemed cool. The treads were shot. The shank was gashed. It was like his favorite boots had suddenly turned on him, reminding him of the enormous gap yawning between him and his dream. Still, it beat looking at Ira, who clearly considered Tommy a fool.

  “Okay, triple then.”

  Tommy refused to acknowledge the offer. Ira was insane. The whole scene was insane. He was rumored to be a relentless negotiator, but all this—over a guitar? From everything he’d read about him, the only music Ira cared about was the song that played during last call when he collected the money from his various clubs.

  “You drive a tough bargain.” Ira laughed, but it wasn’t a real laugh. The tone was way off.

  And it wasn’t like Tommy had to actually look at him to know that his eyes had gone squinty, his mouth wide, his chin lifted in that arrogant way that he had. He’d seen plenty of photos of Ira being the inauthentic, entitled bastard he was. He’d memorized them all.

  “So what if I quadruple my offer, hand over my credit card, and you hand over the guitar? I’m assuming you work on commission? Hard to pass on an offer like that.”

  Clearly Ira had pegged him for the rent-hungry wannabe he was, and yet Tommy still held his ground.

  The guitar was his.

  Or at least it would be just as soon as he collected a few more paychecks.

  And while it was definitely a risky move to deny Ira Redman, Tommy watched as he finally gave up and exited the store as arrogantly as he’d entered.

  Tommy clasped the guitar to his chest, hardly able to believe he’d almost lost it. If he could just make it through the next few months, he’d have enough saved to make it officially his. Sooner if he went on a hunger strike.

  And that was how Ira found him—standing behind the smudgy glass counter, embracing his dream guitar like a lover.

  “Farrington wants a word.” Ira pressed his phone on Tommy, who had no other choice but to take it.

  Who knew Ira and Farrington were friends?

  Or better yet, who didn’t know Ira had an in with the owner?

  Fuckin’ Ira knew everyone.

  The conversation might have been brief, but it was no less humiliating, with Farrington ordering Tommy to sell Ira the guitar at the original price. There might also have been a mention about Tommy losing his job, but Tommy was already returning the phone, reducing Farrington’s angry rant into a distant muffled squawk.

  Fighting back tears too ridiculous to cry, Tommy forfeited the guitar. Hell, he hadn’t even cried the night he’d said good-bye to Amy, the girlfriend he’d been with for the last two years.

  He could not, would not, cry for a guitar.

  And he definitely wouldn’t cry over his father making him look like a fool, showing just how insignificant he was in the world.

  Someday he’d show him, prove his worth, and make Ira regret the day he walked into Farrington’s.

  He didn’t know how, but he would. He was more determined than ever.

  With the guitar in Ira’s possession (paid for with his Amex Black card, which probably had a gazillion-dollar limit), Ira shot Tommy one last appraising look before pulling a folded piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket and sliding it across the counter. “Nice try, kid.” He made for the door, guitar strapped over his shoulder. “Maybe you could have bought it sooner if you worked for me.”

  THREE

  REASONS TO BE BEAUTIFUL

  Aster Amirpour closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and slipped beneath the water’s surface until the bubbles covered her head and the outside world disappeared. If she had to choose a happy place, this would be it
. Cocooned within the warm embrace of her Jacuzzi, free of the burden of parental expectations, along with the weight of their disapproving gaze.

  No wonder she’d favored mermaids over princesses as a kid.

  It was only when her lungs squeezed in protest that she sprang to the surface. Blinking water from her eyes, she pushed her hair from her face, allowing it to fall in long, dark ribbons that flowed to her waist, and adjusted the straps of her Burberry bikini—the one that took a month to convince her mom to buy, and then another month to convince her to let her wear it, and then only within the walled-in confines of their yard.

  “All I see is four tiny triangles and a handful of very flimsy strings!” Her mother had dangled the offending pieces by the tip of her index finger, looking as though she’d been scandalized by the sight of it.

  Inwardly, Aster rolled her eyes. Wasn’t that the whole point of rocking a bikini—to display as much gorgeous young flesh as possible while you still had gorgeous young flesh to display?

  God forbid she wore something that might be considered highly immodest within the confines of her Tehrangeles neighborhood.

  “But it’s Burberry!” Aster had pleaded, trying to appeal to her mother’s own high-end shopping addiction. When it didn’t help, she went on to add, “What if I promise to only wear it at home?” She eyeballed her mother, trying to get a read, but her mom’s face remained as imperious as ever. “What if I promise to only wear it at home when I’m the only one there?”

  Her mother had stood silently before her, weighing the merits of a promise Aster had no intention of keeping. The whole thing was ridiculous. Aster was eighteen years old! She should be able to buy her own stuff by now, but her parents liked to keep as tight a rein on her spending as they did on her comings and goings.

  As far as getting a job and financing her own bikinis—Aster knew better than to broach that particular subject. Other than the rare exception of a random lawyer here, a famed pediatrician there, the females in Aster’s family tree didn’t work outside the home. They did what was expected—they married, raised a family, shopped, lunched, and chaired the occasional charity gala—all the while pretending to be fulfilled, but Aster wasn’t buying it.

  What was the point of going to those impressive Ivy League schools if that expensive education would never be put to good use?

  It was a question Aster had asked only once. The steely gaze she received in return warned her to never speak of it again.

  While Aster loved her family with all her heart, while she would do anything for them—heck, she’d even die for them if it came to that—she absolutely, resolutely, would not live for them.

  It was too much to ask.

  She inhaled a deep breath, about to take another plunge, when her cell phone chimed, and she shot out of the Jacuzzi so fast, she had to yank her bikini bottom back into place when the water threatened to drag it right off.

  Seeing her agent’s name on the display, she crossed her fingers, tapped the gold and diamond hamsa pendant (a gift from her grandmother) for luck, and answered the call, trying to convey a capacity for great emotional depth in a single hello.

  “Aster!” Her agent’s voice burst through the speaker. “I’ve got an interesting offer to run by you. Is now a good time?”

  He was calling about the audition. She’d put her whole heart and soul into it, and clearly it had worked. “This is about the commercial, right? When do they want me to start?” Before Jerry could answer, she was envisioning how she’d break the news to her parents.

  They were in Dubai for the summer, but she’d still have to tell them, and they were going to freak. She’d dreamed of becoming a world-famous actress since she was a kid, always begging her mom to take her on auditions, but her parents had other ideas. From the moment that first ultrasound revealed Aster was a girl, she was groomed to meet a set of expectations that seemed simple enough: be pretty, be sweet, get good grades, and keep her legs firmly crossed until she married the Perfect Persian Boy of her parents’ choosing the day after she graduated college, only to start producing Perfect Persian Babies a respectable ten months later.

  While Aster had nothing against marriage and babies, she was committed to delaying those dream stallers for as long as she could. And now that her big break had arrived, she was determined to dive in headfirst.

  “This isn’t about the commercial.”

  Aster blinked, clutched the phone tighter, sure she’d misheard.

  “They decided to go another way.”

  Aster’s mind raced back to that day. Hadn’t she convinced the director that completely foul cereal was the best-tasting thing she’d ever put in her mouth?

  “They’re going ethnic.”

  “But I’m ethnic!”

  “A different ethnic. Aster, listen, I’m sorry, but these things happen.”

  “Do they? Or do they just happen to me? I’m either too ethnic, or the wrong ethnic, or—remember that time they said I was too pretty? As if there was such a thing.”

  “There will be plenty of auditions,” he said. “Remember what I told you about Sugar Mills?”

  Aster rolled her eyes. Sugar Mills was her agent’s most successful client. A no-talent pseudo celebrity discovered on Instagram thanks to the staggering number of people with nothing better to do than follow the daily adventures of Sugar’s Photoshopped body parts. Because of it, she’d snagged some high-profile commercial eating a big sloppy burger while wearing a tiny bikini, which inexplicably led to a role in an upcoming movie playing some old guy’s wildly inappropriate much younger girlfriend. Just thinking about it made Aster simultaneously sick and insanely jealous.

  “I assume you’ve heard of Ira Redman?” Jerry said, breaking the silence.

  Aster frowned and lowered herself back into the water, until the bubbles rose up to her shoulders. “Who hasn’t?” she snapped, feeling more than a little annoyed at a system that celebrated girls like Sugar Mills and wouldn’t give Aster a chance, even though she was a much classier act. “But unless Ira’s decided to get in on the movie biz—”

  “Ira isn’t making movies. Or at least not yet.” Jerry spoke like he knew Ira personally, when Aster was willing to bet that he didn’t. “Though he is running a contest for club promoters.”

  She closed her eyes. This was bad. Very bad. She braced herself for whatever came next.

  “If you make the cut, you’ll spend the summer promoting one of Ira’s clubs. Which, as you probably know, are frequented by some of Hollywood’s biggest players. The exposure will be great, and there’s money in it for the winner.” He paused, allowing the words to sink in, while Aster fought to keep her disappointment in check.

  She climbed out of the Jacuzzi. The heat of the water combined with the heat of her humiliation was unbearable. Preferring to finish the call barefoot, wet, and shivering, she said, “It sounds shady. And sleazy. And low class. And desperate. And just overall beneath me.”

  She gazed toward her house—an over-the-top, sprawling Mediterranean-style monument to her family’s wealth with its tennis courts, covered loggias, big cherub-adorned fountains, and rolling manicured lawns. Wealth that would one day be hers and her brother Javen’s, provided they followed her parents’ strict and uninspiring plans for their lives.

  She was tired of the way they tried to leverage her inheritance. Tired of the emotional turmoil they caused by insisting she choose between pleasing them and living her dreams. Well, screw it. She was done pretending. She wanted what she wanted and her parents would just have to deal. And if Jerry thought this was a good career move, then clearly it was time to cut ties and move on. There had to be another way. Someone to better guide her career. Problem was, Jerry had been the only agent out of a very long list who’d been willing to meet with her.

  “You’re wrong about Ira,” he said. “He’s a class act, and his clubs attract the cream of the crop. You ever been to one?”

  “I just turned eighteen.” She was annoyed at having t
o remind him. As her agent, he should’ve known that.

  “Yeah.” He laughed. “As if that ever stopped anyone. C’mon, Aster, I know you’re not as innocent as you like to pretend.”

  She frowned, unable to establish whether he’d just said something completely inappropriate, or if he was just calling it like he saw it. She was used to the way men reacted to her. Even much older men, men who should know better. But apparently it would take more than smooth skin, long legs, and the kind of blessed bone structure that photographed well to earn her a SAG card.

  “So, you’re seriously trying to convince me that being a nightclub hostess will help my career as an actress?”

  “Club promoter. For Ira Redman, no less.”

  “Why not just take pictures of my butt and post them on Instagram? It worked for Sugar.”

  “Aster.” For the first time since the conversation began, Jerry was running out of patience.

  Well, he wasn’t the only one. But Aster was smart enough, and just desperate enough, to know when to fold.

  “So, how does this work? You going to claim ten percent?”

  “What? No!” He barked, like she’d said something crazy. As though that wasn’t an agent’s main role. “I know how tough it is to catch a break, and I really think you’ve got something, which is the only reason I signed you. This gig with Ira will get you in front of more influential people in one night than twenty auditions put together. If you truly believe the road to fame is beneath you, then maybe you don’t want it as much as you claim.”

  She wanted it. She plucked a towel from a nearby lounge chair and wrapped it loosely around her. And while it clearly wasn’t the same as scoring the lead role (or any role), she had to start somewhere.

  Besides, Jerry was right; everyone knew Ira’s clubs attracted loads of Hollywood types, and in a town full of gorgeous young girls, all of them fueled on the same dream of fortune and fame, this could be just the thing Aster needed to help her get noticed for the find that she was.

  Trying to drum up a modicum of enthusiasm she didn’t yet feel, she headed for the pool house and said, “Let me grab a pen so I can jot down the details.”

 

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